Subdued fans watch lethargic Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- At some point in the middle innings on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, while the home team was busy losing 9-5 to the St. Louis Cardinals and falling below the .500 mark for the first time this season, a Los Angeles Dodgers official announced to everyone on the press level that the evening's official attendance was 34,288.

The number is often inflated, based on tickets sold rather than actual fans in the seats. But on this particular occasion, it seemed especially laughable.

Lost amid all the front-and-center news of the day -- a press conference in the parking lot, a "sea of blue" police presence, a promise from team ownership and local law enforcement that every possible measure would be taken to ensure fan safety -- was the fact that there weren't many fans there to protect anyway.

It would be one thing if this were late September and the Dodgers were out of contention, but this is the middle of April. This was the first game of a homestand, following a nine-game trip, the first chance for the home crowd to see the Dodgers in more than 10 days. This was at a time of year that is supposed to be about hope and optimism and rationalizations that a slow start is nothing more than that, a slow start.

Well, the Dodgers got their sea of blue, all right. Yes, it came in the form of a lot of cops. But it also came in the form of thousands upon thousands of empty, cornflower-colored seats on the reserved level, five full sections of them down in each corner. It also came in the overall mood of the place, which seemed strikingly and almost inexplicably subdued.

"Yeah, it did," said Dodgers infielder Jamey Carroll, who didn't have a theory as to why. "It seemed like that from the beginning."

Even the boobirds -- who finally came out when reliever Lance Cormier let an already-daunting, three-run deficit turn into a mountain too high to climb when he gave up three runs in the seventh -- were noticeably halfhearted.

Could it be that the fans already have turned apathetic just 13 games into the season? One club official who stopped by the press-box seat during the game attributed all the empty seats to its being a night game in April. Fair enough, but that didn't explain the collective lethargy on the part of those who did bother to show up.

Truth be told, at times, the performance on the field seemed to match the energy level in the stands. Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda, fresh from his stellar performance Saturday night in San Diego, was suddenly very ordinary. The Cardinals took a 3-1 lead in the third, beginning a back-and-forth in which the Dodgers would pull within a run only to have Kuroda give it right back the next inning, until St. Louis finally pulled away and knocked Kuroda (2-1) out of the game with a two-run fifth.

From there, the Dodgers (6-7), in a way that already has become familiar, pretty much went into cruise control. They went 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position, enough to actually raise their average for the season in such situations to a still-pathetic .186. But they appeared at times to be a team still sleepwalking after arriving home around 1 a.m. from Wednesday night's defeat in San Francisco.

Manager Don Mattingly denied that his team looked tired.

"I don't think so," he said. "Anytime you get behind 9-3 there, that is going to calm you down a little bit. I really don't think that was bothering us. It's not like we're going to score eight or 10 runs a night or anything like that, but I really feel like offensively, we're kind of hitting our stride. Guys are having good at-bats."

Then again, maybe it was wrong to expect anything different, considering the lineup the Dodgers threw out there against the Cardinals. Already without injured shortstop and leadoff man Rafael Furcal, Mattingly started A.J. Ellis behind the plate because Rod Barajas had caught every inning of seven of the eight games on the trip. Mattingly also gave Jamie Hoffmann a rare start in left field because, with Marcus Thames limited to pinch hitting because of a quadriceps problem he has been battling recently, Hoffmann was Mattingly's only right-handed option against tough Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia (2-0).

Hoffmann, who was 0-for-3, was sent back to the minors after the game to clear a roster spot for starter Jon Garland, who will be activated from the disabled list Friday and make his season debut against the Cardinals on Friday night.

There is at least some evidence for Mattingly's claim that the offense might finally be getting untracked. The Dodgers did have 11 hits, and they scratched out runs in the eighth and ninth -- the latter on a long home run by Matt Kemp -- a point in the game when they could have been forgiven for packing it in. And even first baseman James Loney, who has been mired in a horrendous slump all season, had his first multiple-hit game with a pair of singles.

But at a time when the Dodgers already have fallen into a third-place tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West, 4½ games behind the division-leading Colorado Rockies, that offense needs to develop some consistency fairly soon. And if that happens, then maybe, just maybe, the people who come out to this new and allegedly safer and more fan-friendly ballpark will have a reason to show some life, as well.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.